Impressive Badgers give Huskers an important first Big Ten lesson
Nebraska flunked in first Big Ten Conference test in a 48-17 defeat to Wisconsin
Balancing run and pass, Russell Wilson again deftly directed the Badger offense
Wisconsin has three road challenges, but seems poised to make a run to Indy
MADISON, Wis. -- The Nebraska fans traveled in droves, dressed in black to distinguish themselves from red-clad Wisconsin fans. Former Huskers player and Badgers coach Barry Alvarez served as honorary captain. Oct. 1, 2011, was supposed to be about the school from Lincoln playing its first-ever Big Ten conference game at one of the conference's most fabled venue.
Then the new kid from N.C. State came out and stole everyone else's thunder.
In his own Big Ten debut, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson showed he's the most talented quarterback in his new conference, and the seventh-ranked Badgers (5-0) showed they're the runaway favorites in the league with their 48-17 rout of the eighth-ranked Huskers.
While we're at it, you might as well start mentioning Wilson and Co. as a contender to reach New Orleans.
"I don't know what people thought of Wisconsin football [before], but we're definitely here to play," Badgers safety Aaron Henry said afterward. "You can put us where you want in the rankings, I don't care about that. But I truly believe we can play with anyone in the country."
Wisconsin's opening four tuneups against UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota -- in which the Badgers rolled and from which Wilson emerged as the nation's second-rated passer -- could have been deceiving. They weren't. If anything, we weren't yet high enough on Wisconsin, and Wilson hadn't yet had a chance to show just how dynamic a player he really is.
"If there's a better player in the country right now, I'd like to see it," coach Bret Bielema said of his prized transfer. "His presence is off the charts."
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Don't go pushing Andrew Luck or Kellen Moore off the mountaintop to make room for Wilson just yet. But the Richmond, Va., native showed to a national audience Saturday night he's the reason Wisconsin -- last year's Big Ten Rose Bowl representative -- has gone from good to great.
Wilson doesn't run often, but when he does, he's fast and elusive. He doesn't pass nearly as often as he hands off, but when he does, he throws perfectly placed darts to his receivers. And the way he sells a play-fake, it's going to take an extremely disciplined defense to keep from him embarrassing them.
The Huskers weren't that defense. Bo Pelini's 2011 squad clearly has its issues, particularly in the secondary, but it still has a handful of future high-round draft picks -- like defensive tackle Jared Crick. On third and 6 on Wisconsin's first series, Crick, who ranks eighth in Nebraska history for career sacks (20), came bursting up the middle straight at Wilson. He delicately sidestepped him, re-planted himself and threw a 21-yard strike to Jared Abbrederis. On the Badgers' next possession, Wilson faked a play-action handoff, but Crick didn't bite. There he was again. Wilson evaded him, took off, and sidestepped Huskers linebacker Sean Fisher for an 11-yard gain.
Both plays were telling previews of the rest of the night, where Wilson did pretty much anything he wanted, running or passing, and did it seemingly with ease. Nebraska counterpart Taylor Martinez kept the Huskers in it early with two touchdown drives, jumping to a 14-7 lead. But with just over two minutes left in the half, Wilson faked a toss sweep to Montee Ball and sold it so well that the Nebraska defense didn't notice Abbrederis running free to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown to put Wisconsin up 20-14. Then, five plays after an Aaron Henry interception of Martinez (one of three for the Huskers quarterback, who had a miserable night), Wilson effortlessly uncorked a 46-yard touchdown to Nick Toon, upping it to 27-14 just before the half.
At halftime, Wisconsin had a modest 61 rushing yards on 20 carries, a scenario Nebraska's defense surely would have welcomed coming into the game. Unfortunately for the Huskers, Wilson had thrown for 233 on just 12 completions [in 16 attempts].
"I'm embarrassed by how we played defensively," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska, because that was a joke."
His nightmare got worse in the second half, as Wisconsin intercepted Martinez again shortly after halftime, and on first and goal at the 10, Wilson faked a play-action, then ran untouched on a naked bootleg for another score to start putting the game out of reach.
Perhaps the biggest thing hurting Wilson's Heisman candidacy is his backfield. Once Wisconsin went up by three scores, the quarterback barely put the ball in the air again. (He finished 14-of-18 for 255 yards and two TDs). Instead, Wisconsin did what it's always done: Bleed the clock dry with it running game. Star tailback Montee Ball, after carrying just 12 times for 51 yards in the first half, finished with 30 carries for 151 yards and four scores. For the fourth time in five weeks, Wisconsin both rushed (231) and passed (255) for at least 200 yards apiece.
"We're Wisconsin. We are what we are," said Bielema. "We're just extremely good right now."
If the coach sounds a bit cocksure ... well, he is. He's known since the spring he had a talent and depth on both sides of the ball. The one thing he lacked then was an experienced quarterback. Thanks to what now seems like an incredibly regrettable decision by N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien (who didn't want to wait on Wilson to decide whether he'd play football or baseball this fall), he essentially wound up signing a franchise free agent (albeit for one year).
Despite showing up late to the scene, the 22-year-old Wilson immediately meshed with Wisconsin's businesslike attitude. "The first time I met him, it was incredible to hear him talk, because it sounded like he'd been here for years," said left guard Travis Frederick. "It was kind of eerie."
Most importantly, Wilson brings a playmaking ability that opened up all new possibilities for Wisconsin's offense. The Badgers can still grind you down, as Nebraska learned in the second half. But they can also air it out -- as the Huskers saw when the outcome was still in question.
"In [preseason] camp one of our goals was to become an explosive offense," said Abbrederis. "We have a lot of explosive players. And Russell puts the ball in places where no one else can get it."
We're only one week into the Big Ten season, yet the conference race is starting to crystallize. Specifically, we can already eliminate about half the league -- including offensively challenged Ohio State and Penn State -- as possible participants in Indianapolis on Dec. 3. Nebraska could still get its act together in time to emerge from the Legends Division (though Martinez does not exactly inspire confidence as a passer), but it would be a stunner if anyone other than Wisconsin emerges from the Leaders side.
The better question is whether the Badgers can run the table.
Two of their bigger tests figure to come later this month when they visit defensively stout Michigan State (Oct. 22) and the Buckeyes (Oct. 29), which at least get back their suspended stars next week. There's also a visit to 5-0 Illinois on Nov. 19.
Noticeably absent is Michigan, whose own quarterback, Denard Robinson, is capable of slicing apart any defense. But the Badgers are more complete in all facets than the Wolverines, as they are the rest of the conference. Besides injuries (of which they've already overcome several on defense), the biggest challenge may be dealing with the attention that figures to mount as long as they keep winning.
Then again, this was the most hyped regular-season Wisconsin game in recent memory, and the Badgers embraced it -- because their coach wanted them to.
"I threw it out to our guys Friday night," said Bielema. "I said, this week I've heard about a big game, a big stage -- all of these big things. All we have is a big opportunity. What are we going to do with it?
"I think they answered the bell."
If Wisconsin has its way, there will be eight more bells to answer.